“The universal talk of dog:” Brendan Gemmell may be Austin homeless dogs’ best friend

Austin Animal Center officer Brendan Gemmell pets dog, Princess.
Austin Animal Center officer Brendan Gemmell pets dog, Princess.

When the Esperanza Community first opened in 2019 near the intersections of state Highways 71 and 181 it faced serious problems with crime. It had insufficient goods and services for residents. And it was overrun with feral cats and dogs. The man credited with helping to lead the charge to rein in the animal problems says that he mobilized resources to empower Esperanza residents to provide fulfilling lives for their pets.

Austin Animal Center officer Brendan Gemmell has been distributing free pet supplies and advice to Austinites experiencing homelessness since late 2021. Gemmell’s Homelessness Initiative Program contacted 4,200 people in 2023 alone, donating 22,000 pet care items, including food, harnesses, collars, and leashes. 

The program is driven by Gemmell’s own proverbial wagging tail. “I go where the people are,” says the 52-year old. “When I pull up in the van, I’m the friendly guy.” By casually conversing with people about their pets, Gemmell breaks down barriers separating people of different backgrounds. “It’s the universal talk of dog. Everybody loves their dog.”

When Gemmell started at the Austin Animal Center in 2021 the program had a severe resource shortage. “The city of Austin does not pay one cent for what I distribute to the community,” he says. Improvising, Gemmell pitched his mission and needs to volunteers, complete strangers and retailers that include Amazon, Costco, and local Tomlinson’s Feed pet stores.

Gemmell determined that these resources weren’t enough. Taking another step, he coordinated his efforts with other outreach programs for unsheltered people. Gemmell got the center to join the Homeless Engagement Assistance Response Team (HEART). It coordinates the efforts of the Emergency Medical Services Department, Austin Public Library, the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and other partners. HEART members work together as issues crop up in the field. “If we could rewind to 2021, we would all be out there doing our own thing,” Gemmell recalls.

HEART has helped Gemmell’s Homelessness Initiative Program rapidly expand. Now it has more than enough resources to serve Austin’s formal sheltering encampments. Gemmell and the Austin Animal Center now want to expand the program by partnering with the Central Texas Food Bank to provide pet supplies to lower-income people who do have housing. “We just need to be the facilitator for the Texas Food Bank so that they have more than enough dog food to hand out.” 

Many of the shelter encampments where Gemmell has worked have experienced rapid growth and change. The Esperanza Community is a good example. In 2020 the Other Ones Foundation signed on to operate Esperanza as a transitional shelter, which prepares residents for permanent housing.

Emily Ballard, now the foundation’s Program Manager of Crisis Intervention, has helped Esperanza work through its best and worst moments. She says that Gemmell’s frequent visits were crucial to leading Esperanza out of its early, feral-animal days. And his style mirrored the Other One’s Foundation’s philosophy. “There are a lot of issues for folks that come from the streets that don’t have a transitional space because their dog is not used to being in a home,” Ballard says. As a former dog trainer, Gemmell helped residents transition to housing, teaching them how and when to crate-train and leash their animals. “It was really helpful in the beginning to have Brendan drive around and deliver things, as well as pet education,” Ballard says. 

 Brendan Gemmell and Emily Ballard of the Other One Foundation, which manages the Esperanza Community.
Brendan Gemmell and Emily Ballard of the Other One Foundation, which manages the Esperanza Community.

Gemmell says that seizing unruly animals wasn’t a solution given overcrowding at the Austin Animal Center. “The community members would still get another dog,” he adds, “so let’s set them up for success with the one they got.” Instead of strict enforcement, Gemmell patiently instructed pet owners on how to care for their animals properly, providing them with the resources to do so. 

Today, Esperanza is a much-improved community for two-legged and four-legged residents alike. All incoming pets must be spayed, neutered, and vaccinated. Esperanza now has a dog park and the Other One’s Foundation now provides pet owners with food, training, and veterinary services. “It’s so radically different than it was,” Ballard says, “and we’re seeing the fruits of our labor.”

Other Austin transition centers, including Northbridge, Southbridge, and the 8th Street Homeless shelters, also have made significant progress on pet services. “The biggest challenge we have now is that throughout the city there are major off-grid homeless camps,” Gemmell says. Approaching pets and pet owners on the streets is a lot more dangerous when they lack formal supervision. 

Gemmell and the HEART team gradually are engaging with these self-established communities through pop-up resource fairs. The Austin Animal Center and its city partners set up temporary resource stations near these encampments, offering residents an array of goods and services. There, Gemmell chats up community members and invites them to help themselves to pet supplies. 

By giving unhoused people the training and resources they need to care for their pets, Gemmell empowers and humanizes some of the people who need it most. He also demonstrates the benefits of being present and engaging with people and pets living on our streets.

“I live in the moment,” he says, “like dogs.”

“The vices of the homeless do not much differ from the vices of the housed, but the homeless, unless they become saints, must pursue their vices in public.”

Travels with Lizbeth, Lars Eighner’s 1993 memoir of a man and dog living on Austin’s streets.

How to Support the Austin Animal Center

The Austin Animal Center accepts donations here. Its Amazon wish list recommends the supplies it needs.

Editors Note

Austin Free Press is proud to publish its first story written by a student in our journalism partnership with Huston-Tillotson University.

Huston-Tillotson University Austin Free Press independent journalism partnership

Student Marcus Santillanes is part of Huston-Tillotson University’s journalism-training partnership with the Austin Free Press. That initiative aims to train young journalists–and journalists of color–who don’t have access to well-funded journalism programs.

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